At the moment, Earthlink is running scads of TV ads showing the hapless nerd beseiged by guys in business suits who pull the plug on his computer, shower him with junk mail and peper him with tennis balls. At Earthlink, the ad says, they don't tolerate any of those service interruptions or spamming or pop-ups. So I thought it would be easy to cancel its service, which I actually acquired back when my account said Mindspring. But Earthlink's ferocious defense apparently only applies to paying customers, not to departing ones. Most ISPs, unlike more regulated phone companies, don't send monthly bills; they simply bill membership to a credit card. Thus, it's not simple even to find a phone number to call when you want out, and you sure won't find any little cancellation box on the home page.
When I got through at 8:50 a.m., I heard the usual chirpy recorded message urging me onto the site's website, where, the voice assured me, all my questions could be answered. There was, however, no prompt or icon or command on the customer service or tech support page for cancelling membership.
Back to the phones. I got to the menu, which didn't give an option for cancellation, but did give one for sales and service. That had to be the one, right? Wrong. After waiting on hold for 20 minutes, Diane told me there was a special customer service department for cancellations. She switched me to it. Fifteen minutes of bad music. I had that familiar, sinking feeling one gets upon entering the land of customer support, tech style. You can get in anytime, but you can't always get out.
Then a tech support rep came on. Can't imagine why you were switched to this department, he said. But I've been on the phone for half an hour, I said, taking the slightly more pleading voice one uses in the second stage of Phone Menu Hell -- the point before you really lose it, while you still hope some decent soul will ignore company policy and treat you right.
"Tell you what," said Steve the tech, his voice getting a tad chillier. "Why don't I stay on with you while we switch you over?" Great, I said. He vanished and wasn't heard from again. In the world of customer service, lies are the currency, and broken hearts abound.
Twenty-five more minutes, and a customer service rep from the first department popped on. A veteran of too many of these conversations to recount, I asked to speak to a supervisor immediately. One (allegedly) came on. Oh, he said, I was in the wrong department. So I did that thing where you recount your sorry travails in Tech Support Hell while they sometimes pretend to care.
"I've been on the phone for an hour," I said, the fuse having been lit. "It only took me five minutes to sign up. Why not make it possible to cancel electronically?"
Can't do that, he said, for security reasons. We have to verify your identify.
"But you let people sign up online, verifying or not verifying?"
"That's different," he said. It sure is. Cash flows in rather than out. After a few minutes (maybe three) on hold, I was told I needed a special devision of sales that cancelled subscribers. The supervisor switched me over. I expected to end up back in regular customer service, but didn't.
At 10:04 a.m., Cindy came on to ask for my name and PW. I didn't have the latter, as I hadn't used the service for a long time, and the PW had vanished into Password Hell, the bottom of a desk drawer stuffed with the detritus of old accounts, ID codes and issue and support reference numbers from countless tech issues and tech support pleas and brawls.
Cindy said Earthlink had no record of my ever having been a customer -- no name, address or credit card on file. I relayed to Cindy how impressed I was that they hadn't skipped a single month of billing me for the service, even though they didn't seem to know I existed. Yet I did have my credit card bill and assured her I was looking at a monthly charge of $9.95. Eventually it occurred to me that the account might be in my wife's name along with mine. The computer seemed willing to compromise on this point. Cindy said my service would be terminated. Was there anything else she could help me with?
Throughout this ridiculous waste of time, a voice kept popping up saying all calls might be monitored to ensure good service. I hope so. I also hope the people monitoring it have a lot of time and stored memory and a high tolerance for generic pop. I wonder if these people ever think about the irony: they spend all this money claiming to want to make life easier for people, yet they make what should be the simplest things nearly impossible.
The AOL call, initiated at 10:25 a.m. was shorter but weirder. This behemoth spends even more money touting how easy and customer-friendly the service is. That is, after all, the ads say, why they're Number One. But there's no keyword on AOL -- which has a keyword for everything -- for cancelling membership. If you root around in customer support for a while and keep typing in "cancel service" at every prompt -- I'm talking two or three browser moves and about five minutes, just enough to discourage the rushed, confused or distractable -- you eventually reach a page that offers an 888 number for cancellation of membership.
Getting the number of course, doesn't mean getting a human to answer the phone, which required another 20 or more minutes. The world's easiest-to-use and most wholesome online service doesn't fuss much about departing customers, either. At this point, I seriously considered saving the cancellation of AOL for another day. Maybe cancelling two ISPs is just too cumbersome for one workday. But then, there was Hemos and the invoices.
A gruff Brian answered the phone. "Can I help you?" he said, sounding as though his feelings were already hurt and he was spoiling for a fight. I assumed I had to be misreading his tone. I said I wanted to cancel.
"Why?" he asked. "We need to list a reason." Wondering why that was any of his business and eager to finally get off the phone, I mumbled something about having switched to cable. "You can piggyback AOL on cable," Brian interrupted. "That's not really a good reason."
Did I need a really good reason, I wondered? Had I missed something in the fine print when I signed up? What if something personal had happened, like a broken-off love affair? Or maybe I was broke, or been driven mad by pop-up ads and spam?
"Is there any complaint about the service?," he asked abruptly. I hadn't heard this brusque tone from customer service people, usually trained to hold onto a syrupy, we-are-here-to-please-you voice that probably causes them (and you) to later go home and torture their pets.
No, I said, I was happy with the service. I had finally switched to cable and wanted to cancel, that's all. What was the point of dumping on AOL, which I hadn't even been on for months? That would just generate a sugary phone call in a couple of days, pleading for re-consideration.
"You're sending out mixed signals here," Brian insisted, none too warmly. "This isn't really a good reason for cancelling. We can talk about adjusting the pricing, because there are different plans, if that's a problem, and since we can piggyback on cable and you have no complaints, I'm afraid I just don't understand. What am I supposed to write down on the form? You're not making any sense."
Contrary to the atmosphere on Slashdot, I don't particularly enjoy arguing, but Brian flipped my trigger. What would a 70-year-old user say under those circumstances, or a kid, or somebody who didn't speak English very well? Or somebody who just didn't want Brian jeering at him in a voice that vacillated between rude and intimidating?
It was outrageous and I finally lost it. "Look, Brian, I don't have to give you an unmixed signal, a good reason or any reason. I want you to cancel the service right now. Got it?"
"Your service is terminated," he said sharply at 10:50 a.m. AOL hung up on me! Things can't be all that rosy at the world's largest communications company. Brian was feeling -- therefore transmitting -- too much heat. But I was finally disconnected.
The morning did bring sharply into focus that this disconnection business is a horror, along with the way tech businesses often treat their customers, even as they spend fortunes taking out expensive ads claiming otherwise. Nobody should have to spend that much time cancelling two ISP's. It's so discouraging and so unpleasant that hundreds of thousands of people undoubtedly find it easier to pay relatively small monthly fees to avoid it. Which is almost certainly the idea.
So at the least I propose that ISPs be required to send monthly bills, listing numbers to call or websites to visit so that users can cancel on the phone or online. that means, of course, that ISP sites must offer electronic cancellation (if you can get on with a PW and ID, why can't you get off with them?) -- a button to push to cancel membership. It obviously ought to be as easy to cancel as to subscribe. Finally, AOL, of all places, and other sites should not dare be insulting, intimidating or browbeating to customers who want or need to disconnect. (Something Earthlink didn't try, I should point out -- though it took an outrageously long time there and the site didn't make the process simple in any way.)
In a world where it ought to be a universal right to get connected instantly, you ought to be able to get disconnected without calling a lawyer, a hit man or the FTC.